Sunday, August 25, 2013

We Who Walk Here

I read through the New York Times obituary for Julie Harris this morning in search of a reference to The Haunting, my nominee for the scariest movie of all time.

Miss Harris, who died on Saturday, made her considerable mark in the theater, but I know her best for her work in Robert Wise’s 1963 classic that has been scaring the beejeezus out of me since I was eight years old.

The movie is finally mentioned in one of the obit’s last paragraphs, where Miss Harris’ character is summed up as “a spinster beset by evil spirits.”

I suppose that’s one way of putting it.

The Haunting is a terrifying ghost story that manages to frighten us without blood, guts, CGI or buckets of flying pea soup. No, Wise combined good filmmaking, three-dimensional characters, and fine actors, to strike fear into the hearts of audiences.

The spookiest thing about the film is what we don’t see. There are all kinds of ungodly noises—pounding on doors, hideously indecipherable chants and wailings, but there are no ghouls or freaks in hockey masks.

Wise lets our imaginations fill in the horrifying blanks and that’s far more frightening than any computer generated hobgoblin.

Miss Harris plays Nell, an emotionally disturbed woman who joins a small research group investigating the strange goings-on at Hill House, an extremely creepy old New England mansion.

I Hear You Knocking...

Nell is central to the plot and Miss Harris plays her perfectly. We learn that Nell had taken care of her invalid mother for years and now lives a miserable existence at her sister’s home.

She seizes the chance to escape to Hill House and the chilling thing is that even though this sinister place reeks of evil, she is drawn to the house because in some sick way it offers an escape from her pitiful life.

Claire Bloom plays Theodora, another member of the group, who befriends Nell. Theodora is a lesbian, but the message is delivered with such subtlety that I didn’t pick up on it for years.

Rosalie Crutchley does a great turn as the demented Mrs. Dudley, the caretaker’s wife, who cranks up the crazy early on by telling Nell in a lobotomized tone that “there won't be anyone around if you need help… No one will come…in the night…in the dark.”

Our family loved this movie so much that we actually rented a TV to watch it at our summer vacation home in the Poconos.

The rest of the time up there we went tube-free, but this was one of the few instances where we allowed to look at what my father called “the Idiot Box” while we were away from Brooklyn.

The movie was frightening enough when we watched it at home, but viewing it in our country house where there were no streetlights outside, where “dark” was seriously dark, I was ready to dive under the couch.

If I had to make a complaint about the film, I’d say there’s a little too much voiceover narration. We hear too much of Nell’s thoughts in scenes where the visuals were powerful enough.

There was a despicable remake of this film, which I refuse to link to and which I actually paid good money to watch in a theater. It is the opposite of the original in every way and that ain’t good news.

I never had the pleasure of seeing Miss Harris on the stage, something I deeply regret. But her role as a spinster beset by evil spirits is permanently carved into my memory and I can’t thank her enough.


Bijoux said...

Rob, there was a TV station when I was growing up that used to show black and white scary movies on Saturday afternoons. Whenever I had the TV to myself, I'd watch the movies and this one sounds familiar. Those old movies were SO much better than the gross, disturbing Saw movies of today. 'The Birds' always comes to mind when I think of a great scary movie.

Ron said...

"Miss Harris, who died on Saturday."

OMG, Rob, I didn't even know that?!?

How sad. Julie Harris was truly one of my favorite actresses. She was freakin' brilliant!

I've seen her in so many films, one of which was, The Haunting, which I LOVED. It was soooooooo scary! And it also had one of my other favorite actresses in it, Claire Bloom! Another brilliant actress.

Later, I watched Julie Harris on my favorite nighttime soap, Knots Landing.

I too never got the pleasure or honor to see her perform onstage. But since her roots are planted in the theater, I bet she was faaaaaabulous to see LIVE.

Great movie review, buddy! And this week I'm going to purchase this film at F.Y.E and watch it again; adding it to my collection of classics! It was such a

Have a super week, Rob!

Anonymous said...

As a fan of horror movies I think this might be a movie I need to make a point to watch. I believe I have seen the remake but I am not remembering much of it so it must not have made a great impression on me. The original however sounds terrifying and that is exactly my kind of movie. Thanks for letting me know about it!

Rob K said...

My pleasure! I think you'll enjoy it. The film has a real sense of evil that gets under your skin.

Rob K said...

@Hey, Ron!

I was shocked and saddened upon hearing the news. What an incredible career this woman had!

And you know something? I think I'm going to buy my own copy of the film as well.

Take care, buddy!

Rob K said...

Hey, Bijoux!

Yes, the old movies did a much better job of scaring people. Today all we see is blood and guts--no style, no skill, and no class.

Believe me, this movie is worth checking out.

Take care!

Lena Bubbyshins said...

Absolutely - one of my favorite horror films EVER! I think I first saw it when I was around 8 as well, and it flipped me out completely. Matter of fact, I re-viewed it just a couple of months ago. GREATNESS!

Rob K said...

Hey, Lena! Isn't it the best? This movie actually scares you--it doesn't sicken you with gross special effects.

Lea said...

Just reading The Haunting of Hill House (by Shirley Jackson) was scary enough - watching the movie, well I kept my hands over my eyes and just peeked now and then!
Have a wonderful day!
Lea's Menagerie

Rob K said...

Hi, Lea:

I remember reading the book years ago and being quite frightened--which is not easy to do on the printed page.

The movie, well, that just plain scares me.

Thanks for stopping by and take care!

Jay at The Depp Effect said...

Horror has never been a favourite genre of mine, since I am WAY too easily scared and tend to hang onto the 'scared' for far too long - my BP doesn't need any upward help these days. However, I do appreciate good theatre and good film-making, and you're absolutely right: one of the hallmarks of a good movie (whether scary or not) is good acting, good writing, and the ability to produce the right effect without computer enhancement, or blood'n'guts.

If I were into horror, I'd go and rent this one tomorrow!

Rob K said...

Hey, Jay. I certainly appreciate your aversion to horror.

This is really more of a ghost story than some blood and gore spectacle.

So if you ever do decide you old BP can handle the jolt, this is the flick you should see!